Summer internships for University of California, Riverside students may look a bit different this year. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, summer plans for seven UCR students didn’t halt. They just shifted.
The students are all part of UCR’s Guardian Scholars Program, a campus network designed to support students transitioning from the foster care system into the university. Four of the students are interning with UCR departments, while three are embedded with community organizations. All seven are fulfilling their individual internships from home.
“Foster youth typically don’t have the privilege to go to their parents and have them help with navigating internships or with paying bills over the summer,” said Kenyon Lee Whitman, program director for UCR’s Office of Foster Youth Support Services. “Aside from the professional development, one of the goals is for these students to use the internship experience to expand their network to obtain a paid job or another paid internship with the community partner.”
The 200-hour summer internship program is funded via a three-year $250,000 California Wellness Foundation grant awarded to Guardian Scholars in 2017. The grant, which also funds housing and other support programs for the students, has allowed more than 20 students to participate in the summer internship program, Whitman said.
“These internships are coupled with professional development, and our partners are doing the best they can to support our students in the midst of this pandemic,” said Whitman, a former foster youth himself who started working at UCR in 2015. “We also match the students with a mentor who is in their field.”
This summer’s work with TruEvolution, an advocacy health organization created to support LGBTQ+ people in the Inland Empire, has kept Evelyn “Evie” Everheart busy with digital projects.
Everheart, who prefers the pronouns they/them/theirs, is focused on using their video game development skills to build “Heroes and Vibe,” a video game tour of TruEvolution’s center and resources. The video game also includes an original storyline and animated characters written and created by Everheart.
Had COVID-19 not disrupted summer plans, they might have been at TruEvolution’s office doing other types of work, said Everheart, 21, who uses Tomgirlstudio as their artistic signature. Everheart was in foster care from age 13 until they matriculated at UCR.
“This pandemic has taught me to create my own projects, especially because we have to work from home,” Everheart said. “I’m also learning to network and navigate in this kind of environment.”
This is Everheart’s second summer internship with TruEvolution and they have recently accepted a job with the organization. Everheart graduated from UCR in June with a linguistics degree.
Completing an internship from home has also been a unique experience for Marlene Lopez, 24. She is interning at Loma Linda University Medical Center, supporting a medical student with image analysis of traumatic brain injuries and brain inflammation. She communicates with the graduate student and the professor who oversees her work via email, Zoom, and Slack.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said Lopez, who expects to graduate this summer with a bachelors in neuroscience. Next step is medical school. “This is new for me. I’m learning so much and I’m thankful I have the Guardian Scholars Program to support me through this experience.”
She wants to focus on pediatric neurology. Her interest in how the brain functions was sparked by her grandmother’s passing from dementia. Now she’s completely immersed in learning about different neurological disorders and treatment processes. After medical school, the goal is to remain working in Southern California.
“I want to become a physician in a low-income community and help those in need, such as the undocumented community,” Lopez said. “I don’t want people to be worried about paying for medical visits when their health is at risk.”
COVID-19 also turned Omar Gonzalez’s internship into a stay-at-home experience. Gonzalez, 19, is a second-year neuroscience major and is learning about social media and mental health through his internship at The Well, UCR’s nonclinical health promotion center for students.
On a typical day he starts his mornings with a cup of coffee, reading emails, and preparing project updates for his supervisor, Devon Sakamoto, The Well’s director.
“I mainly take care of social media and help with presentations The Well provides to students,” Gonzalez said. “For example, right now we’re working on creating an antiracist taskforce.”
In an era hit by the pandemic, social and political unrest, and a mass shift to online education, mental health is more important than ever, he said.
“This is my first internship,” Gonzalez said. “I’m getting a gauge on professional development, time management, and also learning that how I speak to colleagues is different versus talking to my friends.”
Growing up in foster care made Gonzalez want to become a therapist, but his future career plans focused on mental health have started to evolve, he said.
“I entered the foster system around sixth grade, at age 12,” Gonzalez said. “Those experiences, kind of drive me to want to understand the system. I thought about being a therapist, but The Well is opening up my mind to new ideas and possibilities.”